Athlete Interview: Steph Auston

Having succumbed to an injury last year, Steph Auston has hit 2019 with a massive bang. She’s won pretty much everything she’s entered bar a second place to the immortal Courtney Dauwalter. And it’s her ability to race hard and recover quick that caught my eye and the need for a chat. Just how is she pulling these performances out of the bag? Following her most recent win at Oxfam Trailwalker, I grabbed some time with Steph to chat about how she came back from injury, what her training approach is like now post injury and what’s on the radar for the next few years.

You’ve had some fantastic results of late and some highly consistent training too. What’s been the secret to your success over the last 3 months or so?

I got a stress fracture last year (in my heel bone). It was my first ever major injury so I couldn’t run for about 10 weeks! During this time I reassessed myself, why I like to run, race and what I want to get back to and how to get there. I was lucky I could cross train, so maintained fitness, kept sane and built strength through bike, swim and water run until I could start running again (which was bliss!). But the biggest change was everything I do around my training and racing. Particularly mentally, I am so much more relaxed. I don’t plan my week ahead too far and decide on my session on the day.

I am very in tune to how I feel, and recognise when I’m mentally, physically or emotionally tired and to just go a bit easier. As a result, I have definitely learnt the importance of rest, good sleep and remaining positive, trying not to be stressed. Stress wears you out regardless of its form, so I try to be more chill about work, life and particularly running!

Good nutrition is also so important. I love my dairy and calcium and am trying to maximise my bone density before I hit 30 to prevent another stress fracture. I have raced a bit this year (Two bays, Tarewera, In2adventure, Six Foot, Alpine Ascent and Oxfam) but I love it! Racing gives me an opportunity to get away for a weekend and see a new place and go hard. I think it has also made me taper more and try to maximise my recovery between events. Rather than training myself into a hole like I did last year. It also seems to have given me a boost of fitness and speed from race to race which has been good!

Where do you feel your best distance lies? Normally we see you racing around the 50km mark, but you gave Tarawera 100km a good crack and did very well. Are you thinking about moving up in distance more and more? Or just take it as you go?

I do like to be versatile! I really enjoyed the Tarawera 100k as a new challenge and I actually felt I had the capacity to race (not just run) that distance! It was great and I look forward to racing more 100+km, but I do like 50k because you can push harder and recover quicker. I would like to do WSER maybe next year or Comrades as both suit my style of racing. Hard hot hilly and runnable! Saying that I love having a crack at 5km Park Run. I would love to get quicker over 5 and 10 and my road marathon time. Life goals of under 16 for 5km and 34 for 10 are still very much on the radar!

From what I see of your training, you seem to have a very good balance of doing the hard stuff really well, and then the easy stuff very easy. Nothing really in the so-called ‘grey zone’… would that be fair to say and do you find that the best approach?

I am very much a feel runner, you don’t need a watch to tell you something is hard! Saying that, I like to do my sessions as quality either solo or with someone who can push me. And, then in between, I do lots of easy group runs or runs with friends. I like to use races as training (In2adventure and Alpine Ascent) and Park Run as a good hit out too. But then I am more than happy to run my other runs at 5min+ km pace with a friend!

I try to think for the hard sets – what is the purpose of this run? Is it to get tough on hills or develop the ability to suffer and hold form? I don’t worry about pace when going fast either, I try to go by feel – fast not forced – or smooth speed are favourite sayings of mine. I love to dig deep and work hard and you have to recover between sessions to be able to do that!

What are your racing plans for the rest of the year? Will we see you racing internationally a little more? I see you’re picked for the Aussie team last week – congrats!

Thank-you! I am excited to finally represent Australia! After a busy start to the year with a few races I’m doing the Canberra Marathon and then UTA 22km before the World Trial champs at the start of June, which will be a big highlight. I will then have a bit of an unstructured month for mental and physical recovery before doing the Brisbane Trail Run 60km in July. And, then do a mix of road and trail races in Australia through winter and into spring.

I will probably go to Surf Coast as I love that race and maybe Melbourne Marathon. The big one for the second half of the year and my next overseas trip will be Ultra trail Cape Town in December. I have some big plans for 2020 and hope that this will set me up for that! I work full-time so I need to save up some money and co-ordinate leave around my races! And with so many good trails in Australia, I have heaps to keep me busy close to home.

Do you think you could give the 6ft track record a nudge? And… do you have the desire to have a go?

I tend to not worry about records! I just always want to be better than I was last time. There are lots of variables, and I think going for a time can ruin the experience and race – saying that I want to keep improving each year so maybe one day I will improve enough to be a bit closer. I think I lose most of my time getting to the river so need to practice my descending skills. I really respect Hanny and how good she is, so to even be in the ball park would be pretty cool.

Which race in the world would you most like to run and who would you like to compete against?

WSER (Western States) is definitely on the list, with the best field possible! Comrades is also on there, as is Barkley, though my navigation skills and my hate of the cold might limit me there! Maybe the Big backyard Ultra instead. I guess there is a desire to do a race where the chance of failure is almost guaranteed. An Olympic dream is also still there, maybe 2024 or 2028. The Australian girls are strong at the moment and that’s really exciting. I am still young and excited to see how fast I can go across a variety of distances when I train specifically.

I saw your Queen of the Mountain time at 6ft, it was pretty special! What do you attribute your great hill climbing ability to? Are there any particular training sessions you do for hills?

I moved to Merimbula on the Sapphire Coast four years ago as a road runner. My first training partner, Steve was a mountain goat. So I spent the first year being constantly dropped on every hill and trying so hard just to keep up. I eventually got better and now I can usually stay with him most of the time. Its hilly on the Sapphire Coast, so I think that and training with the guys has helped. I also now live in a gully so every run from home I finish with a 1km uphill climb. If I would recommend a session, it would be long hilly runs with people who are better than you. Being dropped is a good motivator.

Who do you admire most in the ultra racing scene right now and why?

The person I look up to most in the ultra world (maybe not so much in racing) is Ross Edgely. He’s not a runner, but an ultra sport adventurer. I watched on Red Bull TV as he swam around Great Britain. He swam 12hrs a day every day for 157 days and remained a cheerful healthy ultra endurance machine! His approach to a challenge is really inspiring. He is all about empowerment and building your engine. Not setting yourself limits but in this cheerful optimistic gentleman like way! I started following his journey when I was injured. It certainly inspired me to keep positive and that I could return better than before.

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I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

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